Hunger by Tony Press

Jenny falls asleep mid-murmur while my eyes trace the ceiling shadows. Her body curves outward from mine. Under her pillow, our left hands join. Her other hand, the only uncovered part of her, ventures a few inches into the night. Her socked feet tuck themselves between my bare ones.   My right hand cups her right breast. More often than I prefer, this particular posture calls back a question from a dozen years ago.

***

Taylor and I had been a couple for six months.   People loved us because Octavia Taylor detested her first name, had responded to nothing but “Taylor” from the day she turned eighteen, and my name is Taylor Trzcinski.   We had been urged for months to get together. “Come on, it would be so cool! Taylor and Taylor!” We succumbed after a mad daiquiri party in March.   It wasn’t half-bad. It was so far from half-bad that I dared not question my good fortune.

Taylor needed ten more units to graduate, but I had bagged my degree the prior June, celebrating the occasion by cavalierly skipping the ceremony, an act for which my parents, the most forgiving souls in the world, never forgave me.   I worked in an off-campus dive but expended more of my energy playing fast-pitch softball, and still more vainly trying to organize our players to get to the right place at the right time.  I was the captain because no one else would be. We were a cheerful bunch on those days we did field a full team, our outfielders raucously serenading our infielders with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” As long as we had nine players, singing or not, I was content.

Naturally, the one time everybody showed up at my place one hour early, as I had begged them to do for weeks, was the morning after the daiquiri bash.

“Hey Taylor.”   A pause. Giggles.   Then, “Oh, hey to you, too, Taylor.”   “Taylor and Taylor, it’s about fucking time.”   One boisterous ballplayer after another opened, then loudly shut, the always unlocked back door, walked through the kitchen to the curtained doorway to the garage, which was now not a garage but my bedroom, and entered once again.   We weren’t caught in the act; in fact, we’d been blissfully, and exhaustedly, asleep until the first of the back door slams.   We presented a peaceful scene, but the shirts, underwear and blue jeans flung to the corners testified to the passion of the night.

“Hey, Taylor. … Oh, hey! Hey, hey, hey to you, too, Taylor.”   She-Taylor knew maybe one-third of the team, but to a man they trooped in, finding spots on or right beside the bed. Taylor, sleepy and bemused and radiant, her red-brown curls tumbling to her shoulders, prudently used one hand to hold the sheet to just above her breasts, and with the other carefully shook hands with those she hadn’t yet met as they gallantly introduced themselves.

“Hello, Rocky, pitcher; Howdy, Ed, second base; Hi, I’m Little Ed, catcher and relief pitcher; Henry, shortstop; Morning, nice to meet you, I play center … my name is Jose.”

We were to wake up together in that bed most days for the next two years. Never again was I required to share my first look. She was a morning delight.

The small house was in a cheap sunny section of West L.A., with an alley running behind.   A tall stucco wall, with a similarly tall solid gate, separated our backyard from the alley, as well as from the neighbors to either side.   The yard itself was nothing but concrete and we parked our semi-reliable cars there.   The real bedrooms were occupied by Billy, who was my left fielder and best buddy, and by Eric, who was neither a player nor interested in becoming one. His dream was to be a session sax player, and he wasn’t crazy to think so.   I didn’t see him that much because he worked graveyard for a carpet cleaning company.   Billy also played music, an acoustic guitar he had built himself, and was doing temp work at the post office.   I played the stereo. Three young men with freshly-printed Bachelor’s Degrees of Liberal Arts.

One morning, Taylor, Billy and I discovered three Springsteen t-shirts on the kitchen table, with a note from Eric affirming that they were ours to keep, souvenirs from his night on the job.   Neither our degrees nor Taylor’s almost-degree status (Human Psychology) had instilled a sense of ethics sufficient to prevent us from swooping them up as our entitlement. Eric had cleaned up at a recording studio in Hollywood.   He never did that again, although it is true he didn’t keep that job very long.   He soon returned to school for a teaching credential, and teaches music and history to this day.

We all loved Springsteen’s music, but the shirts showcased his mythically chiseled face.   I wasn’t a man to appreciate the beauty of other men, but Bruce was an exception.   As a girl at work moaned, “God, those orgasmic eyes.”   Actually, the only man I knew in person remotely worth looking at was Billy.  He had wise green eyes, chaotic hair, a bushy mustache that positively bragged about itself, and a grin to charm the jaded of all ages.   I once confessed to Taylor that were I ever to unleash any deep-seated gay tendencies, it would be Billy in a heartbeat.   Assuming Springsteen was out of town.

Most nights Eric was out working and it was “Billy and the Taylors” hanging out in our small living room.   We’d smoke a little dope, solve the problems of the world, watch grainy television, and sometimes listen to Billy and his guitar. Before Taylor moved in, the three of us had lived together almost a year.   For six weeks Billy had his own roommate, Andrea, in a relationship each knew to be temporary, but the alacrity of its collapse surprised everyone when a real-life professional football player caught her eye, and then the rest of her.

In a way, especially before the advent of Taylor, I suffered Andrea’s absence more than Billy.   In our back cement yard, with the gate closed, we had a perfectly secluded private patio.   In addition to the cars, there were two rusted chaise lounges.   Andrea, who was between semesters, waited tables at night in a Marina Del Rey restaurant that rest of us couldn’t afford to visit, and couldn’t dress the part anyway.   She slept until noon and then spent the afternoons reading and working on her tan.   It was a warm September, the cracked concrete surface almost impossible for bare feet.   Equipped with sandals and a novel, a pink bikini bottom and a large iced tea, Andrea settled on one of the lounges on a beach towel emblazoned Acapulco.   I followed in sandals and cutoffs, with my own book and beer, to the other lounge.   She was happy for my company, though she teased me for my motives —- “you probably don’t even like the sun, you’re really just a breast man, aren’t you.”   When she said that, I would protest, noting that “the sun was big enough for both of us, and the light was good for reading, too.”

She was right. She was the reason I was outside. But it wasn’t her breasts, their size, or the shape, or anything unique about them that enthralled me. I saw them as normal breasts, nothing special.   Older, I’ve learned to treasure all breasts, understand that all are special. Age has a way of concentrating the mind.   I didn’t mind seeing them, certainly, but I wasn’t craving them, or hungering, or anything like that. It was just that when the sun’s rays were peaking, I could not resist doing a little peeking of my own, to savor the tiny pool of glistening sweat that settled just between them.   That’s what I wanted. I am still struck by that perfect sensuality.

Out our front door, which was almost never used, was the backyard of the landlords, whose house faced the street.   The Riveras were non-intrusive, content with our always on-time, in-person, rent check, and otherwise left us alone.   They also rented the back room of their home to Peggy, a single mother, and her three-year old daughter, Molly.   We got to know Peggy and Molly a little after Taylor joined our household.   We knew no one else with a child, so Peggy was an anomaly and Molly a complete novelty.   The Riveras, childless and in their fifties, sometimes looked after Molly in the evenings after Peggy brought her home from day care on campus.   It was ideal for Peggy who was constantly working late in the lab.   She was finishing a postdoctoral in something involving micro-bio stuff.   She tried to explain it to us once but we were hopeless.

Peggy ignored what the old right-hander Satchel Paige called “the social ramble,” and if she ever smelled the marijuana, she never came by to join in.   She was from England, which made her wonderfully intriguing to us, and she wore her hair like Marianne Faithful did a long time ago.   When she laughed, which wasn’t often, I noticed an overbite that added to her charm.   No one in our house was a fashion plate but even we could see how drably she dressed.   Her priorities, and money, went to the basics for her daughter, and then her research.   There was nothing, and no one, for her.

If an absent father existed, we never saw him.   Once, Taylor told me what Peggy had said, that Molly’s father disappeared when Peggy got pregnant. And, Peggy had told Taylor, “He wasn’t all that much anyway.” Taylor was privy to another fact: Peggy had been with a man just once since Molly had arrived, and that had been “for about ten minutes.” Everyone in our house was twenty-two years old.   Peggy had to be close to thirty.

The night that returns this night, returning as real as the sense memory I get when I bite into fudge that isn’t even half as good as my grandmother’s ever was, that comes back to me while my sweet Jenny rests safely in my arms, was one of those typical nights in that little house, with the three of us mellow in the tiny rectangle of a living room, poor Eric off somewhere cleaning carpets.   I distinctly recall Billy on the floor with his guitar. Taylor was sitting on the couch. I lay sprawled half-off the couch with my head in her lap.   The front-door knock was a surprise — everyone used the alley. Who could it be but the landlords or Peggy, though at close to eleven either was hard to imagine.   Peggy it was, and when she closed the door behind her, I saw that though she was cold sober, her face radiated with color.

She perched on the stuffed chair we’d rescued from a sidewalk, her back a good foot from its torn upholstery.   Balanced just so, she took a few breaths.

“I’ve come for a favor.”   She paused.   “Goodness, I sound rather as if I were here to borrow a cup of sugar, but that’s not it.   But I do need something.”

“No problem,” I responded. “Our casa is su casa.   What can we do?   A bottle of wine?   A joint?   A softball?”

She laughed a quick two seconds, then stopped.   “Well, I need … will you … oh, it was much easier in the car.”

“Go on.   Baby-sitting?   We’d love to do that!   Anything you need, we’re here to help.”

“Very well.   I’ll ask. I have to ask. Billy. Billy, will you make love to me tonight?   Now?”

The guitar shrieked, then shut down.   I sat up, holding Taylor’s hand. I was sitting so straight my shoulders hurt.   Billy didn’t budge.   Silence swept in from the four corners, filling all available space.   Peggy broke it.

“I’m asking a lot, I know, but in a way, maybe not so much?   I’m not so terrible, am I? I’m completely scrubbed and lotioned.”

“This is weird.”   Billy’s voice came from a new place.   “I mean, I like you fine, but … .” Silence triumphed again. I waited. After thirty seconds that felt like a month, Peggy tried again.

“It is unusual.   Of course I know that, but when you think about it, where’s any real objection?   We’re both adults.   You are a lovely man.”   She smiled at me. “Taylor, you are adorable, too, but you’re taken.”

“You bet he is,” from my Taylor.

“And,” spoken more to the room than to any one person in it:   “I’m not, what is that darling expression, I’m not somebody you would ‘kick out of bed.’   I’m not, am I?”

She wasn’t, but nobody said a word.   She was on the chair, Taylor and I ramrod straight on the couch and Billy still on the floor, struggling to quiet his guitar as if it were a restless dog.   I was conscious of a rhythm from down the little hall and realized it must be the ticking of Eric’s alarm clock, though I’d never heard it out here before.

I don’t remember the weather that night but I was sweating.   The room shrunk smaller than usual.   Peggy’s gaze shifted: first to her feet, then up at Billy, then back to her feet, then, imploringly, but silent, at Billy again.   At times she managed a quick look toward the couch, more, I thought, toward Taylor than to me.   Nothing but Eric’s clock.   We all heard that.   There was nothing else for our ears.

Peggy coughed, then began to speak.   Before she could, Billy burst: “Jesus.   I really can’t handle this.   I don’t know how to say this.   I guess I should be flattered or something, but shit, come on.   I can’t do it.”

“Of course you can.   Billy, just fuck me.   Just fuck me.   Please.”   Her voice faded a little after the first “fuck me.”

“It is too weird.   I can’t handle it.”

“I’m not trying anything funny, Billy.   I have my diaphragm, it’s still good.   I’m not going to hound you or ruin your life.   I just … I just need it.   Please, Billy.”

“I’m sorry.   You’re freaking me out.   No.   The answer is no.”   Almost faster than I could see, Billy, with guitar, was out of the room, his own bedroom door closing behind him … not slammed, but distinctly shut.

Silence strutted back onstage. After a few minutes, Peggy began to cry, caught herself, sniffled, then cried again.   Taylor and I continued our rigid pose until Taylor separated from me and slid to the floor in front of Peggy and took her hand.   I followed, taking the other hand.   Peggy’s now-louder sobs subsided, and a bit more calmly she rubbed her sleeve across her eyes and cheeks.   I remember noticing she had an embroidered blouse. That was unusual for her. She smiled, still teary:

“He must think I’m mad.   Maybe I am.”

We murmured negative noises.

“But I can’t stand it.   I’m hurting so much.   I’m literally aching with loneliness.   I paid twenty-five dollars for a massage in that place on Wilshire just to feel someone touch me. If I’m not mad, it is only a matter of time.”

By now she was on the floor with us, alternately squeezing and dropping our hands.   We were a tight circle, and again we became quiet, the emptiness punctuated occasionally by Peggy’s heaving breaths.   Another few minutes passed. She took one last calming breath, looked first at me, then at Taylor. She glanced down again and almost whispered:

“Taylor? What if, …”   But before I knew who she was addressing, much less what she was about to ask, Taylor ripped her hand from Peggy’s and pulled herself and me to standing positions.

“No, Peggy.   Don’t even think about that.   No.   It’s time for everyone to be where they belong, in their own beds.”

With that, she opened the front door and added a rough “Good night” as Peggy, rising without another word, walked past her and across the Riveras’ dark yard to her own room.   Taylor closed the door, locked it, took my hand, and walked us deliberately to our room.

We fucked. Desperately. Without joy.   Then Taylor slept, her back against me, but I remained awake, staring wide-eyed at nothing.   Within a year, we would separate, painfully. In five years, we would each find our real, grown-up loves – both, it turned out, named Jenny – and become reasonably civil again. But in that moment with my right hand resting on Jenny’s breast, I wondered at the depths of a person’s hunger, and thought that if it had been me on the floor with a guitar, and Billy on the couch entwined with a girlfriend, how would I have done?   For surely I would have done it, would have tried to fill that need in the night.We never, ever talked about it.   Eric never knew.   We barely saw Peggy again.   One time I saw her coming out of a bank.   We both jumped, then with a half-laugh she said:   “Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you for a favor,” and scurried down the sidewalk.   At Christmas, Taylor and I crossed the border for three drunken days in Ensenada, and Billy and Eric left town, too.   We reassembled the day after New Year’s, and as we paid the rent, Mr. Rivera told us that Peggy and her daughter had moved out.   Once, three years ago, I’m sure I saw her at O’Hare in Chicago, but just as she was turning toward me I angled away and didn’t look back. I hardly ever do.

2 Comments

  1. Tony Press

    I deeply appreciate seeing this story here. Thanks also to the Rio Grande Review for originally printing it, in its Spring 2010 issue.

    Reply

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